This was a battlefield, says bomb witness

Suicide attack on Passover feast wrecks US peace plan while Arab conference in Beirut is thrown into disarray
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The Independent Online

The passover dinner was already under way at the Park Hotel in Netanya when Abdel-Basset Odeh walked into the lobby at 7.30pm carrying a large bag of explosives.

About 300 people had gathered in their holiday finery in the hotel dining room to enjoy the ritual stories and prayers of the seder. But, instead of sipping the ritual four glasses of wine and retelling the tale of the biblical exodus from Egypt, they became intifada statistics.

The armed guard, on the lookout for suicide bombers in a resort that has been a favourite terror target, did not consider Odeh suspicious and let him pass.

Moments later, the bomber from the Islamic militant movement, Hamas, had blown himself up, killing 17 Jewish guests and wounding about 130 others.

Joel Leyden, 48, an American-born Tel-Aviv marketing consultant, was driving into Netanya with his wife and 18-month-old baby to celebrate Passover with friends when he heard a massive explosion that rocked the area.

Within 15 minutes, he was inside the Park Hotel, surveying the carnage and devastation that he could only compare to the aftermath of the World Trade Centre terror attacks.

Mr Leyden, who was on holiday in New York on 11 September, said: "The blast in Netanya cleaned everything out, threw everything against the walls and through the windows. Tiles and wires were hanging down from the ceiling. This was a battlefield where only one side was carrying weapons."

He saw five bodies laid out on the pavement outside. In the dining room, all was dark and silent. There was an eerie blackness with only a single emergency floodlight illuminating what had been a festive dining room. He described walking over shattered glass and lifeless bodies.

In the chaos, one table remained standing, covered by a white cloth and the elaborate seder place settings still in place. "The people who were still inside were dead," said Mr Leyden. "People who weren't dead were being taken away by ambulance. I saw the body of an old woman in an elegant black dress. Her foot had been blown off. A man in his mid-60s, dressed in a smart blue suit, was walking around in a daze, blood pouring out of his head. Like him, most people were in shock, even many of the emergency workers. How can anyone act like this?"

One of the hotel guests, Nechama Donenhirsch, described the attack as a scene from hell. "There was the smell of smoke and dust in my mouth and a ringing in my ears," she said from her hospital bed.

As she and her family fled, they saw a little girl, about 10 to 12 years old, lying dead on the ground, her eyes wide open as if in surprise.

Four hours after the explosion, the rescue squads were still dragging out corpses and sorting body parts. A police officer estimated the final toll would far exceed the 17 already accounted for. Several of the wounded were critical.

Most of the casualties were believed to be older people, perhaps living alone, who decided to celebrate the seder feast with friends and contemporaries in a resort hotel. The bomber was a former hotel employee who had worked in Netanya and other Israeli towns.

He came from the West Bank town of Tulkarem, about 10 miles east of Netanya, but he went underground eight months ago, and Palestinian authorities had been looking for him since Israeli media reported that he had been plotting a suicide attack. He had been on Israel's most wanted list for four years, as a member of the Hamas military wing, Izz el-Deen al-Qassam.

On a videotape released by Hamas in support of their claim, Odeh is shown saying he planned to avenge the killings of Palestinians by Israel during the 18-month-old intifada and "pay back the Israelis in kind". Hamas said in a statement claiming the attack: "This operation comes as a response to the crimes of the Zionist enemy, the assassination of innocents and as a message to the summit convening in Lebanon that our Palestinian people's option is resistance and resistance only."

Police detained three Arab workers last night, who started work at the hotel a few weeks ago. Officers were investigating any connection between them and the attack.

Miriam Feinberg, the mayor of Netanya, which has suffered repeated assaults during the 18 months of the Palestinian uprising, presented a mix of defiance and anguish last night. "The people in Netanya and in Israel will not allow these acts of terrorism to stop us functioning," she said. "They won't stop us going to work, going out for dinner."